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Monroe Kicks Off Season at Austin Playhouse

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Award-winning playwright Lisa B. Thompson captivates audiences with her new play.

By Shelby Woods, Photo courtesy of Lisa B. Thompson 

From the mind of the award-winning playwright and professor Lisa B. Thompson comes a show that powerfully addresses racial violence while uplifting its audience with a message of love. Monroe premieres Sept. 7 through 30 at Austin Playhouse and follows the story of protagonist Cherry and her family as they adjust to life after the lynching of Cherry’s older brother during the Jim Crow era.

“It’s a family drama, it’s a love story and it’s a historical play,” Thompson says. “It deals with the tragedy of life but also the comedic parts of life that keep you going and keep you connected. It’s very much me: very deep but at the same time, really using and deploying and enjoying humor in order to get through the day to day.”

Thompson wrote Monroe while a graduate student at Stanford University. She says she enjoyed the experience but always thought, “It’s my first play. How good could it be?” However, after a friend continuously encouraged her to send it to producers, she revisited the play and decided to send it out. When Lara Toner Haddock, Austin Playhouse’s artistic director, picked it to run during Festival of New Texas Plays and the play won, Thompson realized her play’s potential. The playhouse had a reading in April and decided that very night to open the season with Monroe.

The namesake of her play, Monroe, La., inspired Thompson. Her mother grew up in the Southern city, and while Thompson did not visit often, she remembers how different it was than her life in San Francisco. In her imagination, Monroe retained a “larger-than-life meaning.” Her great-grandfather founded the True Vine Baptist Church, which still exists today and is referenced in the play. Thompson says she sees her family in all of the characters in Monroe. She wonders what it must have been like for her family to make the decision to break from the majority of African-Americans who were going to the Northeast and Midwest and instead, migrate to the Bay Area in California.

After seeing the play, Toner Haddock mentioned to Thompson how it could be a metaphor for the violence African-Americans still face every day, as well as a visual marker for the violence they suffered in the past, before video cameras existed. Though the play was not written to make a political or social statement, Thompson agrees.

“When you work as a writer, your subconscious is really what’s at play and you’re just having fun with all these characters,” Thompson says. “Then you step back years later and realize what was operating in your subconscious. It’s remarkable to learn that.”

Thompson wants people to leave the production realizing “the echoes of these horrors in our nation are still resounding.” She wants people to understand it wasn’t long ago when African-Americans had to drink from different water fountains and use different bathrooms.

“That was my mother. … That wasn’t a long time ago,” Thompson says. “People who were engaged in these acts are still around, raising their families. We need to come to reckon for that sooner rather than later for the country to be in a better place.”

Although her play showcases oppression, mistreatment and suffering, there is also an underlying resilience and beauty Thompson hopes shines through.

Thompson loves working in Austin and feels so embraced by the theater community here. She plans to live in the South the rest of her life, continuing to write plays. She writes with her son in mind, knowing he will be left with the legacy of her work.

While producing Monroe during the summer, Thompson realized it needs to be a trilogy. She’s already thinking about a prospective second play featuring a black family in the Bay Area in the 1970s, and a final play about the return migration to the South.

Tickets for Monroe are available at austinplayhouse.com.

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